Opinion

Music, bean-counting don’t mix well | OPINION

Education in Marysville is improving. We’re doing better in most ways that can be expressed in numbers — test scores, graduation rates, that sort of thing. When the public demanded improvement and we didn’t have the resources to attack all fronts, it became necessary to favor programs where success is measured by test scores rather than those that, well, might make us feel good in ways that defy measurement.

Music and art are hard to measure. Even when done well they’re matters of you like it or you don’t. So, from a bean-counter’s perspective, the arts are too soft-edged, too subjective to compute. By that standard, it doesn’t matter that music might be the highest expression of civilized behavior in any society.

Take a symphony orchestra for example. Sixty or so musicians practice 5,000-10,000 hours just to qualify, then cooperate in highly nuanced performances that test the limits of individual abilities. Every section in the orchestra does something different that enriches the whole, performing precisely what’s written in the score while attending to volume, tone, rhythm, balance, and above all, sensitivity to the “feel” of the music. That level of coordination can’t be found anywhere else. It’s equal to or greater than rocket science.

But public school grads seldom aim to land jobs in symphony orchestras. They might start garage bands. Maybe play happy birthday for their kids some day. Could be they’ll sing in church choirs — or in the shower. Watch other drivers mouthing lyrics while pounding out rhythms on steering wheels. It’s all music and its everywhere.

I’m lucky, having been in music for most of my life. Born the year after FDR was first elected, I know most of the Golden Oldies and still play them in jazz and blues clubs south of here. All that is to say that this pitch for more music in schools is personal. I know what music can do for quality of life, and it has nothing to do with income. The guy strumming his guitar beside his tent in a homeless village would agree.

In a real way, music overlaps on science. It is precise and specific. The full score of a piece of music is a graph that indicates frequencies, intensities and volume changes, all at once and within exact time constraints. It’s mathematical in that players have to instantly interpret fractional time markings.

It gets physical because fingers, lips, facial muscles, the diaphragm and back and stomach muscles get involved. But the part that gets most involved is the brain. Music commands body parts to produce special sounds that are capable of stirring emotions.

There’s scientific proof to back up the emotional aspect. Test subjects listening to music show patterns of synchronized activity in several brain areas. More testing showed the activity-trigger to be dopamine, the chemical that’s always on the scene when people become happy or satisfied. Your brain floods with it whenever you listen to your favorite song. Animals get dopamine highs from eating and sex but only humans get turned on by it with music.

A Stanford University study determined that musical training improves how the brain processes spoken words, a finding that may lead to musical therapy for kids with dyslexia or other reading problems. The same study pointed out a special something that’s changed in the minds of musicians. That’s not surprising because of the long-recognized connection between music and physical sciences. Scan bulletin boards at any university department of Math or Physics and you’ll find all sorts of notices about music groups, rehearsals and performances. Einstein was a violinist. Albert Schweitzer was a pianist and organist. Their friends were musicians.

We don’t teach music because we expect kids to major in music or because we expect them to play and sing their lives away. The goal isn’t so they can relax with their favorite tunes. No one really understands why playing or listening to music delivers such rewards. What we do know is that music has been important to every tribe across the entire span of human existence.

It was 2,500 years ago when Plato said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” More recently, Maya Angelou wrote, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

Music suffers because we’ve become such nuts-and-bolts thinkers that we figure that to support it, we ought to know exactly why it’s so important, asking, Where’s the proof? Show us the numbers! Hogwash. If music could be expressed in proofs or numbers, no one would ever write songs.

My wish is that, given a little space and attention, music will re-enter the school experience of every child.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.

 

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